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Physicians Avoid Conversations About Religion in the ICU

TIME.com stock photos
TIME.com stock photos

Religion and spirituality are not common topics of discussion in intensive care units (ICUs), and doctors often go out of their way to avoid them—even though religion is often very important to patients and their medical surrogates during end-of-life care, a new study shows.

In the study, published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers listened to audio recordings of 249 meetings between surrogates of critically ill patients and health care professionals in 13 different ICUs across the country. The goal was to investigate the religious or spiritual content in these talks. The researchers found that although religion was considered important to 77.6% of the surrogates (a surrogate is a family member or another person responsible for making medical decisions for a patient), conversations about religious and spiritual topics occurred in less than 20% of the goals-of-care conversations. Health care professionals rarely “explored the patient’s or family’s religious or spiritual ideas.”

When conversations about spirituality did occur in some of these end-of-life care conversations, the researchers found that 65% of the time the topic was initiated by the surrogate. Health care professionals raised the issue of spirituality only 5.6% of the time.

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